Middle East Tragedy, Things Go Wild, Indian Temples and the Week in Review
Happy Friday y’all – remember to check out our podcast (Perch VP Xander Synder joins us for our next episode coming out on Monday), wear your masks, and be good to each other. As usual these days there is plenty going on so without further ado, here’s the week in review:
What it means: On Monday, Lebanon’s Foreign Minister Nassif Hitti resigned. In his letter, Hitti warned that “Lebanon today is sliding towards becoming a failed state.” The explosion at the Port of Beirut occurred the next day. Hitti obviously had no way of knowing how clairvoyant his letter was, but his analysis turned out to be tragically accurate. Lebanon has been in crisis for months, with the Lebanese currency losing 78 percent of its value since October and protests against Lebanon’s feckless government have continued on and off again for almost a year. To make matters worse, in recent weeks the most serious fighting in years between Hezbollah and Israel broke out, causing many to wonder (ourselves included) if another destructive conflict was imminent.
Remarkably, for all the geopolitical and socioeconomic issues facing Lebanon, extreme negligence at the Port of Beirut is what brought Lebanon to its knees. Lebanon is extremely dependent on imports, which account for 80 percent of all consumption, and 60 percent of those imports come through the Port of Beirut, including most of the country’s wheat. Lebanon’s main grain silo was destroyed in the explosion and there is little reason to trust assurances from the Lebanese Economy Minister on Wednesday that “there is no bread or flour crisis” and that Lebanon has enough inventory and imports on the way to cover Lebanon’s needs.
How could this have happened? Apparently, a Russian-leased cargo ship carrying over 2,000 tons of ammonium nitrate bound for another potential failed-state we focus on here at Perch Perspectives, Mozambique, was abandoned in the Port of Beirut. The ammonium nitrate was stored in a dockside warehouse and forgotten about. At some point in the last six years, fireworks were stored nearby. And then, on Tuesday, a welding mishap ignited the fireworks, which in turn ignited the ammonium nitrate, leading to Beirut’s misery. That’s at least 4 monumental bureaucratic failures, all of which raise the uncomfortable question of whether Lebanon’s political paralysis has infected the entire country or is simply a manifestation of an overall malaise of disillusion and apathy.
The Lebanese people – a beautiful, creative, diverse, and resilient people – have overcome worse than this. But the sheer senselessness of this tragedy and the incompetence of the Lebanese government is also understandably generating a sense of hopelessness. How else to explain a petition that has emerged requesting re-colonization by France, or that the leader to whom the Lebanese people have turned to for inspiration and sanity is French President Emmanuel Macron, who flew to Beirut and walked the street, hugging and listening to victims and castigating Lebanon’s political establishment. When politics doesn’t work, it is always humans that bear the brunt of the suffering.
Middle East gone wild. The Turkish lira hit new record lows on the dollar despite intense Turkish government efforts to prop up its value. A new U.S. company called Delta Crescent Energy signed a contract to develop oil fields in northeastern Syria in territory controlled by the Syrian Kurds. There are fresh concerns that, with China’s help, Saudi Arabia is expanding its nuclear program, potentially to include acquisition of nuclear weapons. The United Arab Emirates awarded a contract to Shanghai Electric for the 5th phase of the Mohammed bin Rashid Solar Park.
What it means: Beirut is obviously the headline news for the week…but the sheer amount of developments out of the Middle East region this week is enough to keep an analyst busy for months.
Turkey has continually kicked the can down the road on its U.S. dollar dependency, but the fragmented nature of the opposition is keeping President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan ensconced in power…for now.
As for Syria’s Kurds, first, the U.S. betrays them, now the U.S. wants a new American oil company with no track record to develop their oil fields. Talk about inconsistency.
The latter two items concern China’s growing influence in the Middle East. This makes perfect sense: China depends on the Middle East for oil imports; the U.S. produces enough oil at home now and wants to extricate itself from the region (when it isn’t developing Syrian Kurdish oil fields, that is).
Saudi Arabia’s pursuit of “nuclear energy” and with China’s help no less calls to mind the old adage, “with friends like this, who needs enemies.” It’d be nice to have a pragmatic deal in place with Iran right about now to stop a nuclear arms race in the region in its tracks, wouldn’t it? The UAE, for its part, is just doing what is best for the UAE, even if it means running afoul of Washington’s preferences.
A new Hindu temple. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi fulfilled a campaign promise by kicking off the construction of a controversial Hindu temple in Ayodhya in the same area where Hindu nationalists razed the Babri mosque in 1992.
What it means: Tread lightly who lives in hope of not offending Hindu nationalists! Actually, scratch that, for better and for worse we are not the type that treads lightly.
The 1992 destruction of the Babri mosque set off a wave of communal violence in India and has been a focal point for Hindu-Muslim tensions in India ever since. In November 2019, after years of legal battles, India’s Supreme Court ruled in favor of Hindus in the dispute over the holy site. From the Hindu nationalist point of view, destroying the Babri mosque and building a Hindu temple on what they believe is the birthplace of the god Ram is simply a restoration. Crucial in that ruling were the findings of the Archaeological Survey of India, which claimed there was evidence of a pre-existing, non-Islamic structure, on top of which the Babri mosque was built.
We aren’t archaeologists so who are we to say. But we cannot help but point out that the construction of the Hindu temple in Ayodhya began on the 1-year anniversary of India stripping Kashmir of its special autonomous status. It hardly seems possible this is a coincidence. The Western world is (rightly in our view) aghast at what China has done in Hong Kong and critical (again, rightly!) of Israel for its ongoing occupation of the West Bank. India, however, always seems to get a pass. What India did in Kashmir is not much different than what China did in Hong Kong; what India has done in Ayodhya would be like Israeli religious nationalists bulldozing the Dome of the Rock and putting up a synagogue instead.
One can understand and even empathize with the views of Hindu nationalists while also pointing out that India enjoys a double-standard because of its size, its status as a democracy, and the West’s increasing suspicion of China (and its related hopes of making India a more pliable counterweight to Beijing’s growing influence). Part of this is because the West does not understand India at all. India today is not the India the British Empire brought to its knees and used to prolong the life of its Empire. India today is in a process of civilizational change as it tries to strike a balance between its Hindu identity on the one end and its ethnic and religious diversity on the other.
One can only hope that India finds a peaceful balance that allows its people – all of its people – to express their identities without fear of retribution or persecution. The controversy over the Babri mosque is a microcosm of the far greater challenge India faces: how to embrace a more robust Hindu nationalist identity without devolving into a de facto tyranny of the majority. How India deals with its identity crisis will define what kind of role India plays in the world in the 2020s and beyond.
Things can always get worse. U.S. Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar will visit Taiwan “in the coming days” and the U.S. is in talks with Taiwan on the sale of at least four large aerial SeaGuardian surveillance drones. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the “Clean Network program,” a five-pronged strategy that includes blocking Chinese carriers from U.S. telecommunications networks. China’s State Council announced new policies to encourage domestic semiconductor manufacturing and to support intellectual property rights in China. After weeks of rumors, U.S. President Donald Trump told reporters last Friday that he would ban ByteDance’s TikTok app from the United States, only for Microsoft to announce on its corporate blog Sunday that the company is prepared to continue negotiations for purchasing TikTok in the U.S. and other Five Eyes nations.
What it means: The U.S. continues to pass tough measures aimed at decoupling the U.S. and Chinese tech ecosystems. China’s response is relatively measured at this point and may be hoping Joe Biden meant it when he told NPR that he would rescind the Trump administration’s tariff regime if he wins the upcoming November election. And yet while all of this is interesting, the item above that sticks out like a sore thumb is not TikTok, or the Clean Network program, or China presenting a comprehensive strategy aimed at boosting self-sufficiency in semiconductors. All that is in the realm of “expected.” It’s Taiwan that should make observers nervous.
We think China’s goal is to deescalate the economic conflict with the U.S. as much as possible for the simple reason that China’s entire economic strategy is built on globalization, foreign investment, and access to foreign technology (especially U.S. technology). That means China will respond to tit-for-tat measures imposed by the U.S. but it will not escalate the situation (or at least will try not to). Taiwan is a different story – that is a Chinese redline, and any U.S. moves that threaten China’s sovereignty or the status quo on Taiwan will be viewed as a more serious threat in Beijing and in China at large. An HHS and some drone sales don’t cross the redline, but just the fact that the U.S. is flirting with that line makes us downright nervous.
Portugal became the latest EU country to block Huawei without blocking Huawei.
The Russian government is reportedly considering tightening restrictions for granting labor migrants the right to work inside the country.
Multiple media reports from generally reliable sources like Zitamar, Carta de Mocambique, and Africa Intelligence suggest that South Africa is considering possible offensive action in the insurgent-torn region of Cabo Delgado in northern Mozambique.
Chinese experts published an article in the Bulletin of the Chinese Academy of Sciences urging Beijing to designate Shenzhen, Qingdao, Dalian, and Kashgar as centrally administered municipalities.
A UN report concluded that North Korea has “probably” developed miniaturized nuclear devices that can fit on a ballistic missile.
Argentina’s Congress passed two new laws demarcating new boundaries for its continental platform and creating a “National Council for Matters Relating to the Malvinas (Falkland) Islands.”
Egypt is withdrawing from the latest round of negotiations with Ethiopia over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam; Sudan is not happy either, and South Africa is urging all sides to come back to the negotiating table